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Tarring the past

In blaming previous administrations for our present difficulties Ronald Reagan does not differ from other presidents who have frequently pointed to the ''mess'' they inherited from their immediate predecessors. But he has gone far beyond other presidents in indicting the administrations of the last four or five decades. Although he does not mention names, he is obviously referring to Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal; but his criticism also includes, by implication, the Republican administrations of Eisenhower, Nixon, and Ford as well as the Democratic ones of Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter.

Reagan is firmly committed to a kind of laissez-faire philosophy which calls for a minimum of government planning and a maximum of individual responsibility. The assumption of millions of Americans, not just the supporters of the Reagan administration, is that prior to FDR, America was filled with hard-working, honest, thrifty, God-fearing individuals who lived under succeeding governments devoted to ''sound'' economic policies which resulted in a sort of Utopia. Most of us enjoy fairy tales and myths. Older people invariably think that life and society were better when they were young.

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A brief glance at America before 1933 does not validate that myth. During the American Revolution the Continental Congress issued hundreds of millions of dollars of paper currency backed by nothing but faith. George Washington once remarked that it took a wagonload of paper currency to buy a wagonload of supplies. The phrase ''not worth a continental'' expressed the feelings of Americans toward the value of that currency, which was redeemed at 1 percent when Washington became president.

During the Civil War the Lincoln administration, unable to raise enough funds through taxes or the sale of bonds, authorized the printing of paper money, greenbacks as they were called, at a face value of $450 million. At one point that dollar was worth only 39 cents in gold.

After the Civil War, with no government restraint, big businessmen, known to many as the Robber Barons, were rapidly becoming more powerful than either the national or state governments. Public opinion forced the government in Washington to create the Interstate Commerce Commission in an effort to regulate the railroads, and the Sherman Anti-Trust Act to curb the evils of monopoly.

The end of World War I brought the election of Warren G. Harding who promised to restore the nation to a state of ''normalcy.'' Andrew Mellon, secretary of the Treasury under Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover, engineered the repeal of the excess profits and gift taxes and reduced income and estate taxes. The 1920s were the heyday of business when Coolidge remarked that the business of America was business.

Hoover, a most successful engineer, businessman, and cabinet member, entered the White House in 1929 believing that the prosperity of the decade would last indefinitely. That euphoria ended in October 1929 with the stock market crash which preceded the worst economic depression in our history.

In 1933, Roosevelt introduced a form of planned capitalism based on the concept that society, acting through government, had a moral responsibility to assist in creating a greater degree of social and economic justice than he believed had been achieved through almost complete reliance on individual initiative. It is interesting that Reagan, like the presidents since Roosevelt, has retained, even if in modified form, the major innovations of the New Deal: social security, minimum wage and maximum hours, unemployment insurance, collective bargaining, aid to agriculture, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Unquestionably Reagan has benefited politically by gaining the support of those who disliked the philosophy of the New Deal, but he has grossly oversimplified the history of the past half century by tarring the policies of the last eight presidents with the same brush; and he has ignored our history prior to 1933.

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